The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Joy, Luck & Puppetry

Yuquin Wang and Zhengli Xu. Photo by Tom Pich

Chinese rod puppetry isn’t an art form that is easy to find in the United States. In fact, there is only one Chinese puppet theater in the nation, the Dragon Art Studio, located in Portland, Oregon. A physically-demanding art form that dates back more than 1,000 years, rod puppetry combines dramatic and acrobatic staging to tell folktales, legends, and opera.

Working to make sure this art form finds a new audience in the United States are Yuqin Wang and Zhengli Xu, the founders and puppeteers behind Dragon Art Studio. Since moving to Portland in 1996, Wang and Xu have not only performed for audiences at local events, but have also been invited to perform at the Atlanta Olympic Games and at the National Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan. They also perpetuate the art by training a new generation or puppeteers through Oregon’s Folklife Apprenticeship Program.

This Sunday, January 8th, a new audience will be introduced to Chinese rod puppetry as Wang and Xu perform in Enterprise, Oregon, as part of Fishtrap’s sixth Big Read. This performance will launch a month of activities in Enterprise that illuminate different aspects of Chinese culture, all contributing to a greater understanding of the community’s selected Big Read book, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. At the NEA, we were especially excited to hear about this event since in 2004, Yuqin Wang and Zhengli Xu received the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

As part of the award, the NEA interviewed Wang and Xu through their daughter, Brenda Xu, who served as interpreter and answered questions on behalf of her parents. Here are some excerpts from the interview; the full interview can be read here.

NEA: When did [your parents] begin to learn rod puppetry?

XU: My father started early. He has loved puppets since childhood. When he was a little boy he had toy puppets and put on shows for the neighborhood children. After graduating from middle school he began puppetry school. Then he went to a small town in the country to learn puppetry from the old puppeteers.

My mom was different. She was studying to be an opera singer when she was young but when she was 18 was transferred from the opera school to the puppetry company. At the beginning she was not very interested in puppets, but after some time with the puppet company she started to like the puppets.

NEA: What was the hardest thing for them to master in the early days?

XU: The most basic skill is holding up the puppets, so at the beginning they practiced that for long periods of time. Sometimes they’d spend the whole [time] just holding up the puppets. It's really hard work.

NEA: Your father actually makes the puppets, right?

XU: Yes. He's not only making the puppets but also directs, builds the sets, and makes all the music.

NEA: What makes a good puppeteer? I understand your mother really tries to convey a sense of grace through the puppets. What does she try to do with the puppets to make them so lifelike?

XU: It’s very hard to make a puppet come alive. It comes alive through movement and since my mom trained as a Beijing Opera singer she knows how to perform as a real actor. She’s learned to transfer her skills to the puppets, so that the puppets move as people. When they perform, they become the characters.

NEA: What have been the challenges or difficulties they’ve experienced over the years trying to sustain a career as puppeteers?

BRENDA XU: Fewer and fewer people in China are interested in the traditional art forms and in puppetry in particular. More young people are interested in modern art, in popular art, going to concerts. And some people think the puppet shows are just for kids. It’s difficult to have the budget to keep this art form going.

NEA: Could they speak a little bit about why they have continued to perform puppetry through the years? Why it has been such an important part of their life?

XU: They say the traditional art doesn’t belong to only one country. It is the treasure of the whole world. They want not only Chinese people know this traditional art but people all around the world, to let more people know about the Chinese culture, the history and the puppet art.

Click here for more information about this event and Fishtrap’s Big Read. Click here to learn more about the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowships program and to nominate an artist in your community. For more about Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, please visit The Big Read website.

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